As Grusha flees into the Northern Mountains, she sings Michael a song—The Song of the Four Generals. The song tells of four generals who set out for war in Iran. War did not agree with the first general. The second never won a fight. The third felt the weather was “never right,” and the fourth could not command his men to fight for him. The song praises a man named Sosso Robakidse, who marched into battle in Iran and triumphed in ways the four generals could not.
Grusha sings Michael a song which is about war and violence, but whose message is one which praises leadership, confidence, and triumph over chaos—all qualities which Grusha herself is beginning to embody as she heroically and compassionately takes charge of a human life in need of protection despite the dangers it poses for her.
Grusha comes upon a peasant’s cottage. It is noontime, and, according to Grusha, time for a meal. She sets Michael down in the soft grass outside the cabin and knocks at the door. An old man opens, and she asks to buy a pitcher of milk and a corn cake. The old man tells her that he has no milk, as the soldiers from the city have taken all of his goats. Grusha asks the man if he has just a small bit of milk to spare for a baby, and offers to “pay like princes” for it. However, when the old man tells her how much it will cost her—three piasters—she is unable to pay, and the man shuts the door in her face.
In this passage, Grusha observes the effects of war on the peasants outside the city. Everything is scarce, and more expensive due to that scarcity. Thus, she begins to realize that having the child with her may be a bigger burden than she had anticipated—especially in a world where others are often less compassionate than Grusha herself.
Grusha brings Michael to her breast, thinking that even though no milk will come the child might at least think it is being nourished. When the child stops sucking, Grusha returns to the cabin door and knocks again. She offers him one piaster, and he demands two. Grusha relents, and the man gives her the milk. After feeding Michael, Grusha continues on.
Grusha becomes desperate to provide for the child she has taken into her care, and haggles with a similarly desperate peasant man in order to do so.
Arkadi and his chorus sing about Grusha’s journey. The Fat Prince’s soldiers are after her, and her “pursuers never tire.” Two Ironshirts trudge down the highway into the mountains. Their Corporal berates and insults them, and forces them to sing a soldier’s song about leaving loved ones behind. He tells them that a good soldier puts his heart and soul into war, and chides them for not committing to their roles with more enthusiasm. The Corporal wonders aloud how he will ever find the Governor’s “bastard” with the help of such fools.
Things are worse than Grusha knows, with the Fat Prince’s army hot on her trail. This scene reveals the soldiers tailing Grusha to be incompetent but overseen by a cruel and driven man, whose only goal is to find and retrieve the innocent son of the Governor. The stakes are thus raised, as Grusha’s life appears to be on the line.
Grusha arrives at another farm, telling Michael that she is going to leave him here. He has wet himself, and over the course of the journey has become a heavy burden. She tells the child that although she would like to keep him, she cannot. She sets the child down on the doorstep of the farm’s cottage and hides behind a tree. A peasant woman opens the door and sees the bundled child. She calls her husband to the door, and notes that the child looks to be from a wealthy family, as he is swaddled in fine linens. The husband tells his wife he does not want to take the child in, and that they will bring it to the village priest. The peasant wife disregards her husband’s protests, and brings the child into the house. Grusha runs off.
Grusha, finally understanding how difficult caring for Michael will be, plans to leave him with a peasant couple in order to relieve herself of the burden. She expresses regret at having to leave Michael behind, but seems secure in her choice and eager to get on with saving her own life. Although this decision is more self-serving than it is selfless, it is also perhaps the most sensible thing for Grusha to do for both herself and Michael.
Arkadi and his chorus sing a small song expressing Grusha’s competing happiness and sadness at having left the child behind. After walking for a short while, she runs into the two lazy Ironshirts and their Corporal. The Corporal asks her where she is coming from and where she is headed—she tells him the truth, that she is going to meet Simon, one of the Palace Guards back in Nuka. The Corporal teases Grusha rather lewdly before he reveals his official business: he is looking for a baby from the city—a baby from a fine family, likely wrapped in fine clothes. He asks Grusha if she has seen or heard of any such baby. She tells him that she hasn’t, and then runs away, frightened.
Grusha is both relieved and saddened to have abandoned the child after all. When she meets the band of soldiers and their cruel, creepy Corporal, she realizes what is in store for Michael if she does not rescue him, and is immediately overcome with a sense of urgent need to right the wrong she has committed in leaving the child behind. Yet again, Grusha’s impulse toward care and compassion wins out against her self-interest.
Grusha returns to the cottage, where the peasant woman has placed Michael in a crib. Grusha urges the peasant woman to hide the child, informing her that there are soldiers coming, and they are looking for the baby. She confesses that she was the one who left the child on the doorstep, though she is not his mother. Grusha urges the peasant woman to remove the baby’s fine swaddling, as it will give him away. The peasant woman chastises Grusha for having committed the “sin” of abandoning a baby.
Grusha attempts to undo her mistake, but causes the peasant woman anger in the process. Rather than cooperating with Grusha, the peasant woman seeks to shame her, creating chaos and stress and wasting precious time that should be used to prepare the child for the Corporal’s arrival.
Grusha looks out the window, and sees the soldiers approaching. The peasant woman looks, too, and finally understands the gravity of the situation. Grusha warns the woman that the soldiers will kill Michael on sight if he is discovered, so she begs the peasant woman to lie and say that the child is hers. The peasant woman agrees to the scheme, and promises that she will tell the soldiers that Michael is her own son.
As the chaos of the moment peaks, Grusha and the peasant woman come together, both of them acting as provisional “mothers” to Michael, in order to try and ensure his safety in the face of corrupt and cruel “hired fists.” This is as much a stand-off between women and men as it is a stand-off between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless.
The Ironshirts knock at the door, then let themselves into the cottage. The Ironshirts ask Grusha why she ran away, and she replies that she suddenly remembered she had left milk on the stove. The Corporal asks Grusha if she’s sure she wasn’t afraid of the “carnal” spark between them. Grusha denies having noticed such any such spark.
The Corporal continues to bully and objectify Grusha, further cementing his status as a cruel and corrupt individual willing to wield his power in unsavory ways. However, his fixation on Grusha will perhaps distract him from discovering the truth.
The Corporal asks the peasant woman why she isn’t busy with a task, and the peasant woman, overcome with nerves, gives everything away, telling the soldiers that Grusha told her to lie and say the child was hers. The Corporal orders his soldiers to take the peasant woman out of the house while he questions Grusha. Grusha insists that the child is hers, but the Corporal notices the baby’s fine linens and begins to bend over the crib to take Michael out of it. Grusha attempts to pull him away, but he throws her off. Grusha finds a wooden log and hits the Corporal over the head, causing him to collapse. She takes the baby from the crib and runs out of the house.
As Grusha’s last-minute scheme begins to fall apart, she grows desperate to save Michael from the Ironshirts’ clutches, and she puts herself in danger in order to remove Michael from harm’s way. Grusha, who just a little while ago wanted to abandon the child, now would put her own life on the line for his, suggesting that care and compassion are like muscles that a person can develop and strengthen over time rather than innate qualities.
Grusha and the chorus sing a song in which Grusha announces that she has finally decided to adopt the helpless child in earnest, and promises she will never be without him again. She takes off the baby’s linens and wraps him in rags to disguise him.
Grusha has committed herself entirely to caring for Michael, no longer concerned with whatever burden or danger he might bring upon her.
Grusha comes to a glacier which is passable only by way of a “rotten” bridge in terrible condition. Several merchants are already gathered at the bridge, attempting to fix one of its broken ropes. They tell Grusha she will not be able to pass, but she tells them that she must cross to the eastern side of the bridge in order to get to her brother’s house. The merchants advise her strongly against attempting to cross, but just then Grusha hears the band of Ironshirts approaching in the distance.
Grusha comes to the “ultimate test” of her commitment to Michael—a rickety bridge which seems completely impassable, ready to collapse at any moment. As the Ironshirts bear down on Grusha, she must decide, in a tense and chaotic moment, what it is she will do.
Grusha looks down into the two-thousand-foot-deep abyss, and proclaims that being caught by the Ironshirts would be worse for both her and Michael than falling to their deaths. The merchants urge her to cross the bridge alone, so as not to risk the child’s life, but Grusha proclaims that she and the child belong together. Grusha sings a short song expressing her determination to get herself and her “son” across.
Grusha knows that being caught, at this point, would be a far worse death than falling while trying to escape to freedom. She is committed to Michael, whom she now sees as her son, and acts in a way that shows she will do whatever it takes to keep the two of them together.
Grusha crosses the bridge just as the Ironshirts and their Corporal—whose head is bandaged—appear on the western side. The men know they cannot cross, and Grusha, from the eastern side, waves Michael above her head to taunt them. She walks on, and sings the child another small song about her hopes for his survival and his great destiny.